Thursday, 26 January 2012

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

It can't have been much fun to be Queen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For that matter I doubt it was much fun being a woman (or being anything) in those days - at least, not by comparison to the ease, comfort and variety of our lives today.

I've been reading a whole range of books about Queens in the middle ages and early modern period, including Alison Weir's book on Eleanor of Aquitaine (fascinating content, I found it a bit dry) and Lucy Worsley's history of the Georgian Court. And I've got into Philippa Gregory's books - in particular The Other Boleyn Girl, and her books about the Wars of the Roses (The Red Queen and The White Queen). All credit due to Yvann at ReadingWithTea for the blog posts that prompted me to head to the 'G' section in the local library.

I know that we're meant to look down on historical fiction as being somehow 'less' than other fiction, but I don't think received wisdom can possibly be right. Firstly - because good historical fiction is a good read, and fundamentally, that's what I'm after in a book. Who would say that Wolf Hall was a less good book because it concerns historical characters? What about Shakespeare's history plays? A good read is a good read is a good read - and a great book must be a good read, as well as doing something more.

Secondly, because history is about what happened and why. And good historical fiction contributes to understanding the why - if we trust the author to have done a respectable amount of research, it's a lot easier to understand (and to empathise) with social mores and manners if they're illustrated within a plot rather than described with academic caveats. And fictionalised conversations are a far more 'real' way to explain how and why individuals might have made the decisions they did - and to give and gain a tangible understanding of the motivations and constraints that shaped people's decisions and actions.

To be honest, though I feel I ought probably to blush as I type, I even think that the fantasy 'Song of Ice and Fire' adds something to my sense of how feudal loyalties, authority and politics worked and felt. Obviously you need a bit of nous to realise that there are often different interpretations of what happened and/or why, and to remember conversations and plot are not the same as actual history. I think you need a bit less nous to grasp that no-one was hatching dragon eggs in the Middle Ages.

I've also just finished The Song of Achilles by Madeline Millen - retelling the Iliad but focussed on Achilles' relationship with Patroclus, and a great read (made me think of giving the 'real' book a go at some stage). Coming up some time soon, I'm going to continue this historical thread of reading with She-Wolves, and The Winter King. Any other suggestions? Who else writes good historical fiction?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's funny how your memory of a book shifts

Looking back at my year's reading (a bit late, I know), I've realised that the books that win an instant 5* rating as I finish them are not the same as the books that I'd now judge to be highlights.

My best reads of 2011 - the ones that I loved, that I've talked about and recommended, and that I think I'll read again were

There were plenty of other books that I read and really enjoyed - but in the time since I closed the cover, the instant magic has faded and I've realised that they've not stayed with me as deeply as I'd expected.

Last year I read a huge number of books, way more than normal - in part it reflects my new and longer commute, but also that until September I was in a slightly less frenetic job and made a conscious effort to take a break to read while eating lunch. And I suspect a settled relationship sees a bit more reading in bed than the olden days... ;-)